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April 02, 2005



Hello amy,

I think we will be decades if not centuries unpacking all that John Paul II taught us.

I commented earlier on the the difference between the images of the youtful John Paul II and the decrepit one of recent years. The young one is the one I still think of, the one I want to think of; the old one is the one where the music box has stopped playing, so to speak. Except it never did. In a way the John Paul who made a witness of his suffering is even more stirring than the energetic, buoyant one who took the world by storm in 1978-1981. He taught us how to live as Christians. And die as well. In modern times we'd forgotten too often how to do either.

John Paul did indeed fulfill a crucial promise of the Council: he made the decisive move, begun in small steps under Paul VI, to pull the Church out of its Mediterranean carapace (however glorious it was) and truly internationalize it.

One can argue, as even Lutheran Council observer George Lindbeck has, that the Council Fathers were perhaps overly optimistic in their confidence that there was much good in the modern world and the Church's ability to cope with it. The Church opened the windows to the world at the precise moment the world went mad, as some have observed; and it was small surprise that aggiornamento came to mean something far more radical to many reformers in the Church than what John XXIII or most other Council Fathers had in mind, which is no doubt why so many who are so enthusiastic about "vatican II" are usually the most vociferous in calling for a Vatican III, realizing deep down that the Council really didn't really do what they thought it did or should have. As a result a lot more of the world was let in during the years of Paul's reign than how much of the Church made it out.

On the whole, John Paul II struck an impressive balance in recovering what the Council was really all about, no matter how much the theologians screamed.

He will be a tough act to follow.

Conor Dugan


I think you are exactly right. This was a philosopher who understood modern categories and would often employ new language to express timeless truths.

And one of the things I find striking when I hear comments about John Paul hijacking the meaning of the Council is the fact that he was there, he's a father of the Council, he was writing Gaudium et Spes and taking part in the meetings. I tend to think he might have had a better understanding of the Council than many of the commentators.

stuart chessman

Yes, I can well remember the first series of trips - to Poland and Ireland especially - in 1978-81. It seemed such a break with the debilitating atmosphere that had set root in the Vatican. We cannot avoid acknowledging, however that this pontificate was disastrous for the Church. Here are the main pros and cons:

1. John Paul played a key role - just by his very existence as a Polish pope - in launching Solidarity and then managing the course of events so that the outcome was a permanent weakening of communism in Poland. That helped lead to its eventual collapse in Europe. He further blunted the rise of liberation theology in Latin America. Especially for conservatives (myself included) who tended to give the strugggle with communism an apocalyptic character, these were amazing accomplishments.

2. John Paul certainly made himself a worldwide media figure. The last days testify to that. This remained, however, a uniquely personal accomplishment. The media in the US and elsewhere carefully distinguished their respect for the pope's media presence from their unrelenting cold war with the Church and Christ.

3. John Paul essentially confirmed in place the policies and people of 1978 as the name he chose reveals. Movements of reform and apostolates have sprung up, it is true. But, on the whole, vocations declined, schools, churches and hospitals closed and the practice and knowledge of the faith among the laity deteriorated further. Worst of all, the theological and moral chaos contined and deepened.

4. The scandals - financial and sexual - of this pontificate rank among the worst in history - you would have to look to the period just before 1789 or in 1460-1560 for paralells.

5. John Paul did not create this situation, rather, he inherited it. But his own actions - e.g., his hands off attitude to the details of administration, his concentration on travel and media - exacerbated the crisis. Moreover, his personal teaching in word and by example, set disturbing new accents: uncontrolled practical and theological ecumenism, the apologies, the theological speculation on everything from universal salvation to the role of Judaism.

One clear witness to this legacy is the repeated inability of the American institutional church - almost all appointed by this Pontiff - to articulate a clear Christian message at recent "teaching moments" of the highest visibility.

So, when I look at the state of the church, I must consider the pontificate of John Paul II to be a failure. But where I would agree with you is that he was acting as the true implementor of Vatican II. The failure is not primarily that of a person but of a system that cannot be made to work even by the most heroic efforts.

Kevin Miller

"his concentration on travel and media"

That's a very superficial reading. In fact, he concentrated on preaching the Gospel.

"knowledge of the faith among the laity deteriorated further"

I doubt that very much. I suspect that things have gotten better, and not worse, since 1978, thanks to things like the Catechism. That doesn't mean things are great now. But we're talking (I gather) about the trend, about whether the line is slanting up or down.

"theological and moral chaos contined and deepened"

I'm a theologian. When I look at the stuff that was already out there in the '70s - and when I look at what's been written since - the idea that the chaos has "deepened" appears silly. In fact, bad stuff continues to be written - see, e.g., the very recent Church response to Haight. But the good stuff that's been coming out - guided explicitly by John Paul II's work - is better than we'd seen in years, and is far more attractive to the youngest theologians than the bad stuff is.

As for "moral chaos": In many ways, the world is getting worse. But what can the pope do about that besides teach (and pray)? That's not his fault, nor even the "system's." That's the world's fault, as it has been since Genesis 3.

"his personal teaching in word and by example, set disturbing new accents"

The claims about "theologial chaos" need to be seen in this context. If you don't like the pope's (the Church's) teachings, well, you won't see the good that's being done by today's theologians. But that's your problem, not the pope's.

I am not saying that everything in the Church is Just Fine. Nor does John Paul ever say so. But this "failure" line is as ridiculous as is the (liberal) media's claims about the pope's "conservatism" and the like.


Stu --

Very thoughtful, and thanks for stating your arguments clearly and well and without rancor -- even if I doubt that I could agree. Maybe I'm a lib, and maybe the centricism and authoritarianism, and certain repressions got to me, as did a refusal to allow any exploration into certain issues. And as people are saying, time will tell, it's going to take decades to unpack JP2's writings, etc.

A old maxim though, is that causing controversy is one sign, albeit ambiguous, of sanctity.

Cheeky Lawyer

Of course Stuart's claim that "on the whole, vocations declined" must be qualified. I don't know the story about religious vocations but if Stuart was referring to the number of priestly vocations his claim is quite demonstrably false. See here:


This is a myth that we are already hearing on the news these days. Let's not let ourselves be taken in by it.

Joseph R. Wilson

Stuart, why derail a perfectly good thread after Amy posts a beautiful meditation on the meaning of the papacy of John Paul II? I agree with Richard that it will take a long time unpacking the teachings of John Paul II. Kevin, thanks for your insights at a time when it seems most appropriate (and agreeable to me) to honor a great servant of the Lord.


No Pope tried more mightily to re-unite Eastern and Western Christianity than John Paul II....even to the point of suggesting that if there are obstacles to re-unification in the way the Papacy exercises its authority, then he was willing to explore other ways. His efforts have borne some fruit, but not the re-unification that he so much wanted. We should all do what we can to bring this legacy of his to completion.

He never gave the impression that he was waiting for the Orthodox to come crawling back on their knees. He obviously loved Eastern theology and liturgy. He just desired that all might be one and acted accordingly. His image of the Church needing to breathe with both lungs, East and West, was a powerful one that will remain with us.


Actually, I have no problem with commentors expressing thoughts as Stuart did, as long as we can keep it polite - I share much of Stuart's concerns, but just don't choose to make them a focus of posting right now.


The question of vocations reminds me...

One bitter claim I ran across over at the Grey Lady:

"Millions have left the Catholic Church during this pope's reign," says one.

In a sense this is no doubt true, and no doubt for disenchantment on some of the usual propositions mentioned - the Pope oppressed women, gays, refused to let people do whatever they wanted with their sexuality...the usual litany. But the biggest wave of departures was during the upheavals of Paul VI's reign, not John Paul's, who was left to pick up the pieces. With no disrespect to Paul VI, a man who confronted one of the worst crises in the Church's history.

What is left unanswered is how the Church or the Pope could have accomodated itself to these demands and remained herself; indeed, remained recognizably Christian at all. Some seem to think that Christianity is reducible to nothing more than "Love thy neighbor." Yet mainline Protestant churches have adopted these new theologies with abandon and suffered steep declines in membership while denominations maintaining a more traditional understanding of Christian faith have flourished. And as for the Catholic Church? Under John Paul II it has grown from 757 million to nearly 1.2 billion. Papa must have been doing something right. Millions left; and many more millions replaced them.

Ah, say the naysayers: True, but as a percentage of the world population it shrank (a bit). Nearly half a billion Catholics added but you can't win with some people. Especially certain people in the affluent West, for whome Christianity is not about radical sacrifice, self giving, or taking up the cross, but only affirming them and whatever they choose to do or believe in their essential goodness.

Where the Gospel is proclaimed in its fullness and glory, souls and vocations aren't lacking. The numbers speak for themselves.


Umm, we have to be very careful. If you are making claims about trends, you have to state the years your claim covers. As an example, there was a precipitous decline in seminarians right after Vatican 2, 1965-1975. True statement. Now there is not a precipitous decline in seminarians, 2000-2005. Also true. Careful out there, you can claim anything with sloppy statistics.

In that vein, yes, there has been a huge drop in the understanding of most Catholics with respect to what the Church teaches--1965 to 1996. And Kevin, yes, there is now a universal Catechism, but it didn't appear in most languages until the late 90s. Between Vatican 2 and the appearance of the Catechism, circa 1996, the catechetical situation was cataclysmic.

Have you ever read about the semi-successful attempts to subvert the Catechism? They were amazing, and many. Monsignor Michael Wrenn wrote a book on this very subject--a wonderfully informative and candid book--called "Catechisms and Controversies." It is only by the hand of God that we have a Catechism. Did you know that the translation from the original French to English took so long because it was commissioned several times in the US, only to yield almost incomprehensible results? It was finally translated in New Zealand by a single priest whom I bet you've never heard of. =) God has his ways.


You can read segments of the first American translations in the Appendices of Msgr. Wrenn's book. They are so bad, so illiterate, so warped, they are actually funny.

Charles A.

Stuart's comments are excellent.

I would in fact tend to be even gloomier in outlook, but I agree with Amy's remark about choosing not to focus on that now.

Pray that God may have mercy on Pope John Paul, forgive him his sins, and bring his soul to eternal life.


Stuart, if you are going to criticize a pope for following Vatican II then I am afraid you are in for a lifelong series of disappointments. If you take nothing else from the papacy of JPII, take his leitmotif: "Be Not Afraid!" The Holy Spirit will not abandon the church, of this you can be sure. And you need some historical perspective: look at some of the darkest periods of church history during the middle ages and some of the very unworthy popes who sat on the chair of Peter.

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